One of my all time favorite movie scenes occurs during the 1939 classic "Ninotchka". The title character . . . Soviet Union Special Envoy Nina Ivanovna Yakushova (which explains why she's called Ninotchka) . . . is in an argument with the expatriate Russian Grand Duchess Swana. They are initially arguing over the possession of some jewels (Ninotchka says the jewels belong to the Russian People, and Swana says the jewels belong to her). Back and forth . . . back and forth. But the women are linked by yet another issue: the fact that both of them are interested in Count Leon d'Algout. What starts out as a spirited debate over legalities and class divisions and disagreements in economic philosophies soon get pushed aside in favor of a far older and much more basic argument. Two women . . . one man.
In talking about this film I feel I have to get something immediately settled. Most of you, after all, are dewy-cheeked youngsters who were raised believing that George Lucas invented movies. But (unless I've missed checking a driver's license or two), "Ninotchka" was made long before any of us were born. And it's still good. The reason it's still good can pretty much be summed up in two words:
No, he didn't invent cough drops. You're thinking of someone else. Lubitsch was the German-born film director who, after a prolific career in his native country, came to America to show the rest of us slobs how to make charmingly entertaining films. Along with "Ninotchka" he brought us such gems as "To Be or Not to Be", "The Shop Around the Corner" and the rather delightful "Trouble in Paradise". I emphasize all this because my discussion will go a heck of a lot smoother if you simply take it for granted that Ernst Lubitsch = Good Movie. Try it with me here. I say "Ernst Lubitsch" and you say . . .
Well, I remind myself that Greer Garson didn't invent radium in a day (actually she invented it in a laboratory!). But try to hang onto the idea that Lubitsch was a genius because he was. The point isn't conditional, pumpkins. Trust me on this one.
And now back to our movie. "Ninotchka" takes place in Paris during the time when the dust of the 1917 Russian Revolution is still settling, and all the major cities in western Europe are playing host to Russian refugees (usually of the aristocratic variety. In fact it occurs to me that "Ninotchka" would make a great double-feature with Anatole Litvak's 1956 film "Anastasia"). The Soviets, having confiscated (or liberated, depending on whose side you're on) all remaining property, are also in the major cities trying to sell the loot for desperately needed cash. Three Russians arrive in Paris to sell jewelry, and make something of a pretty mess of the whole business. For openers a former member of the aristocracy recognizes the jewels as belonging to the Grand Duchess Swana who's also living in Paris (and don't worry, pumpkins. I'm also occasionally temped to say "Grand Duchess Swanee River"). For openers-2 the Russians fall into the hands of the Count Leon d'Algout and are immediately conned into enjoying La vie Parisienne. The Soviet government, sensing something is wrong, decides to send a Special Envoy to take charge of the operation and clear up the mess. Enter Ninotchka: the no nonsense operative (the Party Girl who ain't here to Party, if you get my meaning). She becomes the target of the Count d'Algout's charms even though (A) he doesn't yet know of her relationship with the original Russian team, and (B) he's also romancing the Grand Duchess Swanee Riv . . . the Grand Duchess Swana.
Oopsie (or perhaps that should be "Oopski!").
Shakespeare used to fill his plays with relationships this complex. Unfortunately he died in 1616, so Lubitsch had to make do with the shmoes at hand when he decided to adapt the Melchior Lengyel original story. That's the bad news. The good news is that the shmoes Lubitsch used included Charles Brackett ("Sunset Boulevard", "The Lost Weekend", "The Major and the Minor", etc.), Walter Reisch ("That Hamilton Woman", "Journey to the Center of the Earth", etc.) and Billy Wilder (Billy Wilder). With this he had---
(What the heck do you mean "who's Billy Wilder"? C'mon, people. I said Ernst Lubitsch was a genius. Well, there are some who'd say that Wilder made Lubitsch look like a moron by comparison. He was the one who brought us "Stalag 17", "The Seven Year Itch", "The Apartment", "One Two Three", "Some Like It Hot" . . . practically most of the significant comedies of the middle 20th Century. When Lubitsch was putting together a writing team for "Ninotchka" he obviously knew what he was doing.)
Anyway . . . with this sort of solid writing in his line-up, Lubitsch had the makings for a deliciously complicated web of humor and romance. All bound up with Lubitsch being one of those directors who never skimped on characterization. The term "spear carrier" hardly applies to any of his work when even the most minor doorman or random passerby can deliver memorable lines and present more depth of character of the sort that most major roles in other films have to struggle for.
Tie this up with the stable of actors Lubitsch brought to the project. The initial Russian delegation is composed of Sig Ruman, Felix Bressert and Alexander Granach . . . all of them veteran character actors (as you go "Uh oh . . . Uncle Mikey's talking about character actors. We're in for the long haul here"). Of the three Granach enjoyed perhaps the less recognition in America, but together the three manage to effectively portray a trio of Russian apparatchiks who arrive in Paris initially befuddled by the opulence which surrounds them (and who inevitably become "corrupted" by the "bourgeois environment").
(Fans will probably focus on Ruman who, among other things, went up against the Marx Brothers in both "A Night at the Opera" and "A Night in Casablanca". One of those actors who could do anything thrown at him: comedy, drama, suspense . . . you name it.)
(The movie was banned in the Soviet Union, as well as its satellite states, and I suspect a lot of it had to do with the way Ruman, Bressert and Granach portrayed their characters. It hardly speaks well of a revolutionary nation when it sends a trio of goof-offs on an important mission. Not to mention the fact that Communist Russian Humor usually left something to be desired.)
The plight of the Russian delegation certainly isn't helped by the character of Count d'Algout: a man possessing the sort of personality I used to pour on my hair in the mornings. Leon d'Algout is . . . and let there be no bones about it . . . a gigolo. In fact he puts the "zhig" in gigolo ("Our worries are over! You remember that platinum watch with the diamond numbers? You will be in a position to give it to me.").
I admit to not having liked the character of Leon very much. Certainly I try not to be too hoity-toity (and whoever is snickering in the background had better cut it out), but I used to have trouble imagining how such a smarmy gold-digging snarkopolus could be considered the leading man in a story.
Subsequent viewings, however, have solved the matter for me. Realistically a leading man (or a hero) doesn't have to start out being virtuous or noble or decent. The icing on the narrative cake comes from a character undergoing redemption or growth or maturity within the course of a story. It's much more interesting (and occasionally challenging to the writer or filmmaker) if the character finishes the story a much better person than when he started.
Which is why I, for one, am grateful that Lubitsch dropped the idea of Cary Grant for the role of Leon. Grant was certainly a fine actor, but he was also one of the few people who could end a story smarmier than he began it and still be loved by the audience. No, what "Ninotchka" needed was someone who could play what I, for want of a better description, call a "sophisticated innocent". A person who feels confident in the ways of the world until one day when WHAM . . . he comes up against a situation he's totally unprepared for (e.g. Louis Jourdan in "Gigi", Robert Preston and Matthew Broderick in "The Music Man").
Melvyn Douglas manages rather well as Leon. Handsome and smarmy enough to make a passable gigolo, but obviously all too human to fool the audience for very long. I tend to wince at the lines he employs to pick up women ("It's midnight. Look at the clock, one hand has met the other hand, they kiss. Isn't that wonderful?" If I tried a line like that with Child Bride then I hope she'd have the sense to knock the fool out of me). He does better when nimbly tossing off wry social commentary ("A Russian! I love Russians! Comrade, I've been fascinated by your five-year plan for the last fifteen years"). He becomes a much more elegant and confident thief when bamboozling the Russian delegation (demonstrated in a cleverly filmed early scene where Leon is "corrupting" the delegation members . . . the process shown mostly "off-camera" by a procession of pretty hotel maids and such entering the room where the delegation is staying).
I mentioned how the character of Leon sort of left me cold at the outset. The same could be said for Ina Claire as the Grand Duchess Swana. I suppose she was attractive enough, but Claire gave the character a sort of metallic brittleness that I had a difficult time warming to. In fact, the first few times I saw the film I kept confusing her with Gladys George from "The Maltese Falcon".
And bitch bitch bitch! "I am so bored with this face. I wish I had someone else's face."
(To which I mutter: "That makes two of us, sister".)
But I eventually had an epiphany about the character similar to the one I experienced concerning Leon. The Grand Duchess Swana wasn't supposed to be drop-dead gorgeous and arouse the deepest sympathies in the audience. Far from it. She was meant to emphasize the fact that Leon was a gigolo, which boiled down to the hard cold fact of beggars not being choosers. Certainly Leon could've found someone warmer and more attractive to attach himself to (hold that thought), but Swana had the money. And, as a pre-eminent philosopher of the last century pointed out, "A kiss may be grand but it won't pay the rental on a humble flat, or help you at the Automat".
(The philosopher obviously never met Jessie Royce Landis from "To Catch a Thief", but I'm digressing here.)
But then along comes Ninotchka and everything gets overturned.
If you only had one chance to see a Greta Garbo film then "Ninotchka" would be the obvious choice. Here Garbo initially plays the Special Russian Envoy as being just a degree or two colder than Siberia. But Lubitsch and his writers wisely didn't use this as an excuse to keep Garbo from producing some lovely zingers (in her initial meeting with Douglas she easily deflates all his attempts at dalliance with the cool efficiency of a machine-gunner). Along with Garbo's beauty her greatest strength (to my way of thinking) was in her ability to maintain a perfectly straight face no matter what lines she was delivering. At the risk of being the cause of some shrieks the nearest actor I can think of with that sort of self-control is Tommy Lee Jones.
But Ninotchka soon warms to Leon's persistent attempts at romance (as well as the shenanigans of the delegation members), and in Garbo's hands the transformation is like the gradual rising of the sun. The famous scene where the character's reserve is shattered by a pratfall from Leon (resulting in the famous "Garbo Laughs" tagline) is, to me, less effective than what happens much later in the film. Returned to Russia she tries mightily to fit herself back into the cold Communist machinery she had managed to escape while in Paris. But when informed of the antics of her friends in the delegations (a report courtesy of Bela Lugosi in a wonderful non-Dracula role), Garbo shows us a character trying outwardly to conform, but who cannot prevent laughter from bubbling to the surface (Garbo does barely suppressed happiness rather well). Honest love has not only redeemed the character of Leon, but it has proven powerful enough to transform the cold socialist figure into a human being. It's all sentiment, but never shallow or cloying. Thanks to one of the better screenplays ever penned, as well as the respective talents of some true professionals, "Ninotchka" delivers its message as effectively as the champagne which helps break the ice between Garbo and Douglas.
I have not heard if the Russians have since lifted the ban on the film. Considering the state of affairs in the former Soviet Union one would certainly hope so. Obviously the film can't harm anyone any more (if it ever did). As Garbo remarks to the picture of Lenin: "Smile, Little Father, Smile."